Nearly four years ago University of Houston football player Michael DeRouselle stole a teammate's checkbook, forged a check and cashed it at a local bank. While the investigation of that crime was under way, the star defensive lineman stole a roommate's check, forged it and cashed it at Sterling Bank in Friendswood. After pleading guilty in state district court to the second forgery, he received a five-year deferred sentence and was put on probation.
Prior to the fall semester of 1998, DeRouselle was again nabbed for forgery. This time he had illegally signed his academic adviser's name to a state voucher that he used to purchase $700 worth of textbooks at the campus Barnes & Noble. He then peddled the books for bucks.
Even though the second violation could have got him jailed for violating probation and stripped of his athletic eligibility, UH officials chose not to report the incident to campus police or the district attorney's office.
UH did report the violation to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which suspended him for three games at the start of the 1999 season. DeRouselle was required to pay back the ill-gotten $700, and the matter would have likely ended there if UH Chancellor Art Smith and his subordinates had had their way.
DeRouselle's creative feats of penmanship hardly rank as major crimes, but they did set in motion an internal bureaucratic fight that has left the job of veteran UH Police Chief George Hess in limbo. Since the DeRouselle incident, Smith has revised UH regulations to eliminate the campus police agency as one of the designated recipients of complaints of white-collar crime on campus. Instead, Smith and his top subordinates will decide when a criminal act merits investigation or reporting to law enforcement agencies -- a stand that draws the ire of Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes Jr.
The 59-year-old Hess found out about DeRouselle's bookstore escapade only by accident, after the NCAA disclosed the incident in response to an open records request. The Chronicle ran a small item in its sports section. Hess read it and immediately launched an investigation. Hess says that the administration's failure to notify the police department of the criminal allegation against the football player violated a school policy in effect since the early '80s.
Hess told his boss, John Martin, associate vice chancellor of administration, that he was opening the investigation. After completing a report, Hess says, he had no choice but to turn it over to Harris County prosecutors.
"By law, when I know there is a crime being committed, I have to report it to the district attorney," says the chief. "I've been here 22 years, and I have never violated that statute."
His superiors were not happy with that decision. Martin, Smith and the school's chief financial officer, Vice Chancellor Randy J. Harris, confronted Hess last June in a meeting that Hess describes as "nasty." The police chief says he was told not to take the DeRouselle case to outside law enforcement.
Hess recalls that during the 90-minute meeting Smith told him that school officials would decide who is prosecuted for crimes on campus, not the district attorney or the campus police. He quotes Smith as saying, "George, I can smile at people and fire them at the same time." Hess says he took that as a threat that he could lose his job if he didn't drop the matter.
Hess says he then had a UH police officer contact a Harris County prosecutor, who filed criminal charges against DeRouselle.
Assistant District Attorney Jane Waters, the chief prosecutor of the 180th District Court, where DeRouselle's case was assigned, recalls the UH administration tried to keep the football player out of court.
"My understanding was that UH did try to avoid the police department finding out about that offense," says Waters. "I got the impression the football program had tried to sweep it under the rug, but then someone found out about it and started investigating it."
After DeRouselle pleaded guilty, Judge Debbie Mantooth Stricklin sentenced the player last November to 180 days in jail for the first forgery, and four years for the second. DeRouselle's attorneys appealed the sentence, and he is out of jail while the case is pending before the First Court of Appeals.
A week after the sentencing, Hess says, Martin informed him in a meeting that he was fired. Hess replied that he had no intention of resigning and could not be terminated without just cause.
After the chief retained lawyer Glenn Diddel, UH officials backed off. According to Wendy Adair, UH associate vice chancellor/vice president of university relations, the chief has not been terminated and retains his post. Smith and other UH officials did not respond to an Insider request for comment.
(Adair, one of the last remaining women in Smith's testosterone-heavy administration, may be out the door before Hess. There is now a national search going on to fill her position, and Adair is not a candidate. She declined to say whether that choice was hers or her supervisors'.)
The Smith administration remains embroiled in a sex discrimination case filed by former UH attorney Susan Septimus. The university appealed a finding by local Equal Opportunity Employment Commission investigators that Septimus had been harassed and wrongfully denied promotions by UH General Counsel Dennis Duffy. The case was reinvestigated by the EEOC Dallas office. Sources close to the investigation indicate that within weeks the Dallas office will issue findings that are largely unchanged.
Even if Hess remains as campus police chief, he may find himself in the odd position of having to file open records requests with his own administration to find out if anybody is breaking the law on campus. In a memo issued last September, Chancellor Smith revoked a previous policy that directed employees with knowledge of criminal activity to report it to the campus police. Smith claimed the decision resulted from a management review that determined that it was unnecessary to report crime to the police department.
That decision contradicts an understanding hammered out between UH officials and Johnny Holmes in 1992. Holmes at that time told school representatives that his prosecutors would have the final say in whether charges were filed for thefts of university property, which by law belongs to the state. Holmes points out there is a state statute that makes it a crime to hinder the prosecution of suspects.
"If the guy is not prosecuted, I'm the one that's hindered," says the district attorney. "That's my function, my role, that's what I'm here for. I'm the only one that can make that call. And here, the administration is making that decision unilaterally in a public institution."
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According to Smith's directive, anyone wanting to report suspected criminal activity on the UH campus should contact Chief Financial Officer Harris or the school's Internal Audit Department.
"The chief financial officer shouldn't be conducting the investigation so far as finding a person accountable for criminal conduct," retorts Holmes. "Otherwise, what do they need a police force for?"
Judging by the handling of the DeRouselle case, if you report a campus crime committed by a student athlete, you shouldn't be surprised if Smith and company don't get back to you. At least until the player's season is over.
The Insider's season never ends. Call him at (713)280-2483, fax him at (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at email@example.com.